One day in January 2011, Mira Tweti walked down to the garage of her Playa del Rey apartment where she saw -- amid the clutter of trash meant for recycling -- a small, midcentury bird cage. Clean and narrow, the 3-foot cage had a diameter roughly the size of a large dinner plate.
Though a self-described "tough New Yorker," Tweti couldn't help herself: she saw the empty cage and started sobbing.
"The minute I saw it, I knew the whole story of the bird who lived in that cage, and it was one sad story," she says. It was clear that the bird had died, and that -- judging from the near-spotless condition of the cage -- its owners had loved it. The problem was not a lack of affection or good intentions. What made Tweti cry was that the cage was so small that the bird who lived in it essentially spent its life being abused.
According to Tweti, who has written two painstakingly researched books on parrot care, most people know nothing about parrots -- a category that comprises about 70 percent of pet birds and includes parakeets -- even those who own them as pets. Tiny cages, with barely enough room for the bird to stretch its wings, have remained the norm in the U.S. for decades. Seen as listless animals, parrots are left in their cages and mostly ignored all day, with the exception of a water change or food refill.
Tweti, an animal welfare advocate and journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times (and L.A. Weekly a decade ago) has been one of the loudest voices clamoring for an overhaul to the way people treat and think about parrots. As the founder and executive director of the national Parrot Care Project, Tweti has launched a national campaign to raise awareness about parrot care (though she says the effort really extends to all pet birds).
The campaign's Los Angeles launch includes a series of events, the first of which took place in April at Omar's Exotic Birds in Santa Monica with a cage exchange (you trade your old small cage for a discounted large cage), professional speakers on bird training, cage-building experts and an avian veterinarian. The campaign's launch will continue throughout the year (the next event is July 21).
According to Tweti, Southern California is one of three bird-breeding hot spots (the others are Florida and Texas) because of its ideal climate and a profusion of open space. In the L.A. area alone, there are five bird rescues. "Really, you have to live at the tippy-top of a mountain to not be within two or three hours of a parrot rescue anywhere in the States," she says.
Much widespread ignorance about birds begins with the cage, Tweti says.
"If people are buying a small bird, they get a small cage. Proportionately it looks fine. They think, 'Why would I get a giant cage for a small bird?' But logically it doesn't make sense. Would you keep your dog in the bathroom? A bird needs as much movement as a dog, if not more."
Pet owners often assume that small cages were made with small birds in mind, but Tweti says nothing could be further from the truth, as the cage builders (who often work abroad in countries such as China) have no real understanding of parrot physiology. Her goal is to ensure that the basics of bird care become common sense, in the way that information about dogs and cats largely is.
"I haven't had a dog in 20 years or more, but I know that if i get one, I have to get it spayed or neutered," she says. "Why do I know that? I know because the campaign has been so pervasive. It's everywhere. The bottom line is if you wouldn't do it to your dog, don't do it to your bird." As she speaks over the phone, bird squawks filter through from the background.
It's hard not to use cats and dogs as useful points of reference; these domestic pets fully permeate the American media in the form of dog and cat food commercials, silly YouTube videos and Internet memes, and animal welfare campaigns. If Tweti can do the same for birds, she'll consider her work successful.
"I think of this campaign as a parrot Amber Alert," she says. "I'm trying to reach mainstream America, whether you have a bird or not."
Up next we've included Tweti's list of five mistakes people make that can hurt their pet birds.
5. Using a cage (or a small cage)
"Putting a small bird in the small cage is like putting someone who's a little bit shorter in a shorter house. ... Look at how fast the sparrows move. They cover much more territory than a pigeon in a given day. They have faster metabolisms. ... It's tragic that these birds are living in cages where, when they spread their wings, they hit the bars."
4. Feeding it an all-seed diet
"Sure, dogs need a healthy diet, but they can really eat almost anything. Parrots can't. A parrot on a bad diet is a dead parrot. ... An all-seed diet is one of the worst things you can feed a bird. They need fresh fruits and vegetables every day, but most people don't know that." All-seed diets don't provide parrots the vitamins they need; as a result, many will suffer from nutrient deficiencies that affect their bones and vision.
3. Not giving it toys to play with
"The average pet owner thinks toys are a treat, but they're a necessity. Imagine a child growing up without toys. Parrots need stimulation all day long." Not having toys and other "enrichments" like baths and time outside the cage affects parrots psychologically; one in 10 even goes so far as to pluck out its own feathers from the deprivations of living in captivity.
2. Not giving it attention
According to Tweti, part of the problem is that "parrots are difficult pets. They're high-maintenance, they need a lot of attention and they bite." Still, it's a bad idea to assume that parrots are content to be by themselves all day: they're incredibly social creatures. "You shouldn't leave a bird unattended, in the way you wouldn't leave a 5-year-old unattended." (Parrots have approximately the intelligence of a 5-year-old human).
1. Assuming that because it looks healthy, it is healthy
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No matter how healthy your bird looks, it still needs regular check-ups from an avian veterinarian.
"Most people don't even know there's such thing as an avian vet. Just like with kids, your bird needs a physical. Birds tend to mask their illnesses. The way you find out your bird is sick is it falls off its perch and dies," says Tweti.
Tweti's next event, called a CagexChange, will take place July 21 from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. at the American Legion Hall parking lot in Culver City. Those interested in reserving a cage can do so at CageXChange.com and can register for the event here.